Here’s nothing comic-book fans like better than a knockdown, drag-out fight. But the most interesting superhero battle these days isn’t playing out on four-color pages, it’s taking place on movie screens, between two old foes who have battled and sniped at each other for going on half a century.
t’s Marvel versus DC, and for the uninitiated (or the less geeky), the two publishers dominate the comic-book market and own every hero popular enough to show up on a bedding set. Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman (think the old “Super Friends” TV series) are all the property of DC, while Spider-Man, X-Men and Captain America are Marvel’s babies.
Basically, the two companies would like to melt each other with heat vision.
“When either one of them talks about the other, no matter who it is in the company, there’s tension and rivalry,” says Gerry Gladstone, co-owner of Midtown Comics. “There is a rivalry almost to a childish point. It’s been there since Day 1.”
This battle’s got everything that make comics worth reading: slugfests, superpowers (if you count making the Z-list “Ghost Rider” into a hit a superpower) and above all, high stakes. While the top-selling comic book only moves around 100,000 copies, a blockbuster movie can pull in a billion bucks.
And currently in this epic throwdown, Marvel is winning. Mightily. It’s like Hulk beating up on Krypto the Wonder Dog.
This year alone, Marvel has released “Ghost Rider” (which pulled in a surprising $115 million) and “Spider-Man 3,” (which broke records, or something). On Friday, Marvel’s next movie, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” arrives, along with likely millions in box office revenue and priceless mainstream exposure for its marquee superteam.
And that’s just 2007. Next summer, “Iron Man” – starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard – hits screens, along with “The Incredible Hulk,” a reboot of the you-wouldn’t-like-me-when-I’m-angry franchise, featuring Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.
Meanwhile DC (and Warner Bros., which, like DC, is owned by TimeWarner) hasn’t come close to matching Marvel’s output or success in the 21st century.
“Batman Begins” was masterfully done, but “Superman Returns” mostly fizzled with critics and audiences.
Then there was Halle Berry’s “Catwoman.” Moment of silence, please.
And with the exception of sequels for Supes and Bats (including next summer’s much anticipated “The Dark Knight”), no other DC superheroes are guaranteed to hit the screen anytime soon. (Warner Bros. didn’t make its executives available for comment.)
Perhaps trying to catch up, DC has optioned a slew of its properties recently, including an X-Men-like team of misfits called “The Doom Patrol,” and “Teen Titans,” a group of young superheroes that’s already spawned a popular cartoon. Nervous fanboys, however, have pointed out that in both cases Akiva Goldsman – the man who wrote 1997’s franchise-killing “Batman & Robin” – is attached to produce.
Another cinematic try at an A-list DC hero, Wonder Woman, recently collapsed after writer-director Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) had differences with the studio regarding the film’s direction. On comic-book fan site, Whedon called his 18 months of work a “huge waste of time.”
A fan-made video called “Hi, I’m a Marvel … and I’m a DC” posted on Youtube nicely sums up the state of the rivalry. In a parody of those Mac commercials, a Spider-Man toy needles a Superman toy about Marvel’s movie dominance.
“We’ve got plenty of projects lined up,” Superman says confidently.
“Like Wonder Woman?” Spidey asks.
“You may see that one eventually,” Superman stammers.
“Flash?” Spidey asks.
“Sometime possibly soon in the next few years,” Supes says. “And we just asked a few writers to think about the possibility of maybe what it might take to theoretically make a Justice League movie in the next 10 years or possibly more, perhaps.”
But while DC/Warner Bros. may not have yet found the winning formula for consistently churning out superhero blockbusters, it has nicely managed to leverage its nonhero properties. “V for Vendetta,” “Constantine” and “A History of Violence” were all based on its comics. The company has more movies based on similarly spandex-free fare in the works, including “Y: The Last Man,” the wonderfully inventive saga of the lone survivor of a plague that kills every male on Earth.
“There’s certainly a diversity among what we publish,” says DC president Paul Levitz, who incidentally refused to characterize DC’s relationship with Marvel as a “rivalry.”
But for DC, the billion-dollar question remains: How in the world can Marvel produce a hit with a third-tier character in a critically reviled movie like “Ghost Rider,” while a film starring the most well-known hero in the universe, Superman, can’t even make back its budget domestically?
The answer may lie in the nature of each company’s heroes. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created many of Marvel’s iconic heroes in the 1960s, their innovation was to give their characters great humanity along with great power.
“They took superheroes and made them more realistic,” says Midtown Comics’ Gladstone. “They gave their characters real traits, had them living in real cities – most in New York City. They had tremendous flaws and problems that you and I would face every day: getting to work on time, having a cold or flu, having a sick aunt.”
“I do believe that what moviegoing audiences respond to is what the comic-book audience and the Marvel audience has responded to for decades. And that’s relatable characters,” says Kevin Feige, executive producer of “Fantastic Four” and most of the other Marvel movies. “There’s a reason these characters have endured for 20, 30, 40 years. There are emotional elements that people connect with. The Marvel characters are infinitely more than their exterior design. They have an emotional core.”
But Marvel hasn’t always been on top. DC ruled the ’70s and ’80s with its initial Batman and Superman franchises, while for years Marvel years failed miserably to capitalize on its characters. The company was sometimes in financial straits (Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996), which led to a Hollywood fire sale on many of its properties. These ill-conceived deals spawned dreck like a 1989 Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren, David Hasselhoff as superspy Nick Fury and most legendarily of all, a 1994 Fantastic Four movie directed by schlockmeister Roger Corman. It was never released.
Not to mention a certain Howard the Duck, who laid a lead egg for Marvel in 1986 – one of that decade’s biggest box-office debacles.
Although the quality of its movies has improved, Marvel still hasn’t gotten out from under those bad deals. Years ago, the company licensed characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men to Sony and Fox, respectively, and those studios are reaping most of the rewards. According to Fortune, Fox grossed a combined $2 billion on the three X-Men movies. Marvel’s take: just $26 million.
Marvel, however, recently formed its own studio, which will produce (and keep the profits from) “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and the loads of other films the studio has planned. Among their contenders are: “Ant Man,” directed by Edgar Wright, the man behind “Hot Fuzz “Thor “Captain America,” which will be set partly during World War II and partly in the present day; and, ultimately, “The Avengers,” which will unite all these characters into a superteam.
“We definitely have the stories to keep these film franchises going for a long time,” says Feige, who also guaranteed an “X-Men 4.” “What shapes they take and what players are involved will always shift every three to four movies.”
In other words, Spider-Man will be back, even if Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst aren’t. And that’ll probably be OK with fans – as long as no one hires George Clooney and gives the spider-suit nipples.